The XX Factor

Oklahoma Is Siphoning Money From Schools and Pouring It Into an Anti-Abortion Curriculum

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin during the Republican National Convention on August 28, 2012 in Tampa, Florida.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Oklahoma’s schools are among the worst in the country, but at least state politicians are tackling that problem head-on with a law outlining an important new curriculum. With the help of a measure signed last week by Republican Governor Mary Fallin, educators will be newly prepared to convey the lesson “that abortion kills a living human being.”

The law, HB 2797, which goes into effect Nov. 1, requires both the state’s Department of Health and its Department of Education to work toward “the purpose of achieving an abortion-free society.” In practice, this means that the Health Department will be developing a barrage of “public service announcements, media,” and other agitprop; posting on its website that “The State of Oklahoma strongly urges you to contact them if you are pregnant”; and otherwise working to make women feel watched. The new law also says that “no program or state employee may refer any student to a medical facility or any provider for the performance of an abortion.” The Health and Education Departments have been directed to work together to create “education programs regarding the humanity of the unborn child” for Oklahoma’s ninth-through-twelfth graders. (Parents would be able to opt their children out of these classes, according to the Tulsa World.)

Critics have already raised concerns about what subjects might suffer to make room in the school day for anti-abortion propagandizing. “Adding yet another mandate on [teachers] and forcing them to have those very emotional and political conversations with young people just takes away instructional time from other areas,” Democratic State Representative Emily Virgin said, according to the World.

Time isn’t the only limited resource that Oklahoma can’t afford to pour into lecturing teenagers about how life begins at conception. Oklahoma has a $1.3 billion budget deficit, and that weight is falling heaviest upon its struggling school system: Reuters recently reported that Oklahoma’s $3 billion education budget had been cut by $58 million since January. Though the law technically establishes a “Public Education on the Humanity of the Unborn Child Fund”—“a continuing fund, not subject to fiscal year limitations”—to pay for the high school programs, it’s not at all clear where the money will come from to fill it. The Education Department estimated this spring that the it would cost up to $160,000 to develop materials for the program and about $10,000 per high school, or about $4.78 million total, to put the program into action.

To make a long story short: If the law does go into effect, it will represent the siphoning of funds away from some other priority in the already desperately squeezed state. If it doesn’t, it will probably be because Oklahoma simply can’t afford it.

Oklahoma’s financial woes appear to have been all that prevented Fallin from outlawing abortion completely last month. The state legislature passed a bill that would have made it a felony, punishable by up to three years in prison, to perform the procedure. When Fallin vetoed, she restated her opposition to Roe v. Wade—the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion—but called the bill “so ambiguous and so vague” that it “would not withstand a criminal constitutional legal challenge.” As I wrote at the time, Fallin’s signature would almost definitely have embroiled Oklahoma taxpayers in a costly legal battle that their state could not have won.

Of course, while Oklahoma’s methods for “achieving an abortion-free society” have a totalitarian tinge, the goal of creating a society in which abortion happens infrequently makes total sense. That’s why, during debates over the bill, Democrats advocated supplementing it with strategies that might actually work. As reported by Rewire, Rep. Virgin suggested an amendment that would include comprehensive sex education, and another Democrat, Rep. Jason Dunnington, wrote an amendment to “provide family planning services, including all forms of contraceptives.” Without these changes, the bill is like “starting a book at the end,” Dunnington said, according to the World. “A student in Oklahoma would learn about abortion and gestational cycles, but there would be no guarantee that they would learn about sex and pregnancy.” The Republican majority voted down both amendments.

It’s long been said that Republicans’ passion for the unborn doesn’t extend past delivery. In Oklahoma, conservatives believe the rights of fetuses should commandeer valuable class-time and over-subscribed state dollars, regardless of the costs to actual children.